Speaking of Dialogue…

Yes, I know I’ve written about aspects of dialogue before, but it’s time I tackled the subject in general.

First, why do fictional works include dialogue at all?

  • The most important reason is because people talk.  A lot.  If you’re writing a story about more than one person, chances are they’ll have something to say to each other.
  • Also, dialogue is a great way to show the reader things about your characters.  More on that below.
  • Without any dialogue, your story would be uninterrupted narration.  Dialogue helps to break that up.

There are several points to bear in mind as you write dialogue:

  • Each conversation should be significant.  It should support and advance the plot.
  • Use dialogue to illustrate aspects of your characters.  Show your readers your character’s wants, backgrounds, attitudes, values, emotions, and thought processes.  Since dialogue requires two or more people, you’ll also show their relationships with each other.
  • Gender can factor into dialogue.  There is a tendency for women to speak horizontally – to use conversation to establish the degree of emotional closeness and, once established, go from there.  The tendency for men is to speak vertically – to discover through conversation where each stands in a hierarchy, and, once established, go from there.  These are just common tendencies, not firm rules.
  • If you write a character’s dialect (the way they deviate from Standard English), be careful not to overdo it.  A word or two in each sentence is sufficient.  Avoid dialect that readers could construe as an insulting stereotype.  If you’re inventing a new dialect for a non-existent culture or world, do it with care so as not to confuse your readers.
  • Speaking of not confusing readers, that’s essential for dialogue.  At a minimum, readers need to know who’s speaking.  Ensure you use separate paragraphs for each character.  Give each character her own “voice” or “tone” identifiable through her word choice to help the reader distinguish one from another.  Use “tags” like ‘Charles said,’ or, better, ‘Charles said as he holstered his blaster.’
  • Dialogue should convey emotion.  People are emotional and fictional people even more so.  Avoid using dialogue just to convey information.  Changes in emotion from mild to strong during a conversation can be quite effective.
  • For more authentic dialogue, listen to real people talking.  In your writing you shouldn’t write exactly the way you hear it, though.  Do include the cadences and the shortcuts based on assumptions about what the other person already knows.  Don’t include the “um’s” or the tangential trivia.
  • Don’t overdo it by making your story mostly dialogue.  That’s just talking heads.  Readers want thought, and especially action, too.

Please leave a comment and let me know if this helps you write better dialogue.  Also comment if you think I left out an important aspect of dialogue; I’m certain I did.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this example of dialogue:

“Who’s that handsome and ingenious guy with the excellent blog advice?”

“He calls himself–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe.”

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All Your Stage’s a World

Yes, I know Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage,” but my point today has to do with the settings of stories.  The “stage” or “world” or “milieu” of your story is its setting.

The setting includes such things as the physical location, the time in history (including time of year and day), geography, culture, etc.  It includes all aspects of the description of this backdrop for the characters–the effect on all senses, as well as the overall mood.  Setting is, along with Character, Style, and Theme, one of the four fundamental components of fiction.

In my view, Setting is less important to a story than Character, but it’s still vital.  Your readers have a need to see the background, to imagine where the characters are, to visualize themselves in that venue along with the characters.  Without a setting, a story would consist of characters talking and acting in a void, standing before a blank screen.  (That would be interesting if done once, but tiresome if every story was like that.)  Think of the very beginning of almost any movie, just after the opening credits.  The audience is presented with a setting before the camera shifts to the film’s characters.

So how does a writer go about the task of hammering her stage together?  Keep in mind the primary sense for most readers is visual, so you’ll want to describe what a character sees, or would see if the character isn’t present yet.  However, emphasizing other senses besides sight might be more appropriate if a particular character has a keen sense of hearing or smell and you’re trying to work in a little character description, too.  Or if your main character is a dog, for example.

It isn’t enough to provide a neutral, fact-based description of your story’s setting.  This isn’t a news broadcast, so you should imbue your description with a mood or tone in keeping with the story, supporting its theme.  Or you could describe it through the eyes of a character, thus giving the reader a sense of the character’s attitude toward the setting, and how it makes that character feel.

You’re not writing for 19th Century readers, so you don’t get to go on for many adjective-loaded paragraphs describing the setting in pixel-by-pixel detail.  Today you have to keep it brief, and be very selective about the details you choose.  Your aim is to paint a few brushstrokes, as in classical Chinese art, and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest of the world.  One way to do this is to go ahead and describe the scene fully as an exercise (either writing the text or mind-mapping), with all the details, then cut back to a few essential aspects.

You’ll want to place most of your setting description early in the scene, as an aid to your readers so they know where the characters are.  But you can also intersperse brief snatches of setting description throughout the scene.

The setting’s purpose in your story, then, is to form the backdrop against which the characters act.  Don’t fall in love with your setting; stories are about the human condition, and your characters must be in the foreground.  Your setting helps the reader place the characters in a context.  It can also help you bring out the story’s theme, mood, plot, and even introduce some symbolism.

As with all of my blog posts, I could be right or wrong about all of this.  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.  In this particular place and time, I’m–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe



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Book Review – A Time of Changes

I’ve enjoyed other books by Robert Silverberg (Roma Eterna, Letters from Atlantis, and Gilgamesh the King) and so had high hopes for A Time of Changes, published in 1971.  After all, it won the Nebula Award in 1972 for best science fiction novel.  I listened to the Recorded Books version, their Sci-Fi imprint, read by Pete Bradbury.

The blurb for the book stated it takes place on another planet where the use of “I” and “me” or any self-referring pronouns is blasphemy.  For me, that brought to mind Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, both novels about civilizations that forced people to think of themselves only as part of a collective, not as individuals.

But that’s not exactly the case with the planet Borthan, where the protagonist, Kinnall Darival, lives.  It’s a bit more complicated.  In most areas of the planet, people live under a centuries-old Covenant which forbids people from sharing personal thoughts with anyone, with two exceptions.  People may share any thought with a “drainer,” a religious authority who is paid to listen; such unburdenings of personal feelings is meant to be cathartic and bring a person closer to the gods.  Citizens may also share thoughts with “bond-kin;” these are a pair of unrelated people of the same age assigned to each person at birth.  People can share intimate thoughts with bond-kin but never become sexually intimate with them.

If this seems complicated, I agree.  But it seems Silverberg has created a world where love itself is cut in two.  People share sexual love with their marriage partners, but not emotional love.  The only outlets for emotional love are forbidden as sexual partners.

Silverberg fleshes out the world of Borthan in a thorough way, complete with geography, history, myths, and socio-governmental structures.  The tale follows the life of Darival as he finds a drug that can allow people to read each other’s minds, and how he falls from being a wealthy prince to a fugitive outlaw.  I found the Darival character well-drawn, as were all the others.  Despite the complicated premise, the novel is easy to read.  Silverberg has a wonderful writing style–flowing and lyrical and yet precise in meaning.  Pete Bradbury does a fine job with narration.

However, I did find the premise difficult to believe.  The colonists from Earth who’d settled the planet centuries before set up the Covenant for religious reasons, apparently.  But their aim in separating emotional from sexual love is not clear.  Nor is it apparent how the Covenant remains in force even when there are occasional visitors from Earth, so that Borthan citizens become exposed to alternative ideas.  The mind-reading drug is available on a neighboring continent, so (despite the population’s strange disinclination to travel) it stretches credibility how Darival is the first person to try to spread new ideas about love.  Also, it made little sense why the technology of Borthan was at the early-20th Century stage (cars and telephones), despite the story taking place about a millennium in the future.  Lastly, I couldn’t understand the taboo against self-referencing pronouns.  Original architects of the Covenant clearly wanted people to think of themselves as individuals–it’s considered virtue to solve your own problems without burdening others.  So why forbid the use of “I” and “me?”

With regret, I’ll give this novel a rating of 3 seahorses.  See the basis for my rating system here.  I do recommend A Time of Changes, but it is not my favorite book by this author.  If you feel I’ve been unfair, please enter a comment for–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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We’d Like to Offer You a Contract…

You’ve sent your short story around to different markets, gotten rejections, but finally one publisher accepts your story.  Hooray!  Then an e-mail arrives with a long, legal document for you to sign.  It’s your first writing contract.  It looks so complicated, and all you want to do is see your story published, so you think about signing that contract without really reading it.

Don’t do that.

At its most basic level, a contract is a written agreement between two willing parties.  Each has something to offer, something the other party wants, so the contract should be for mutual benefit.  The writer has his story and wants both money and a published story.  The publisher is able to ensure books get printed and offered to the public and is willing to pay writers for good stories.  Pretty simple, right?  What could go wrong?

Writing contracts (for short stories, with which I have experience), have a fairly standard structure.  Here are the basic parts, though contracts vary by publisher:

  • Definitions of Author, Publisher, and Work
  • Permissions Author grants the Publisher
  • Rights being purchased by Publisher and the time period (term) of the rights (when they revert back to the Author, both in case the book isn’t published and if it is)
  • Payments and Royalties paid by Publisher to Author, including Author copies of published book.  In the case of royalties, some contracts also state how the Publisher will provide periodic royalty statements.
  • Termination of Agreement – some contracts stipulate how the agreement will be or could be terminated
  • Author Warranties (author owns Work, no other conflicting contracts, Work is original, Work doesn’t defame others, etc.)
  • Author Indemnities – (Author holds Publisher blameless in lawsuits if Author has misrepresented anything in contract)
  • No competing publication (Author agrees not to publish Work elsewhere first)
  • Changes in Text or Title – Publisher agrees not change the work without Author permission (approval of galleys), but usually minor copy-editing changes are allowed.
  • Venue – links the contract to the laws of a specific country or state
  • Signatures

For several reasons, you might be tempted to sign your first writing contract without reading it:

1.  All those unfamiliar legal words are intimidating.

2.  I’m anxious to get published.

3.  It’s probably one of their standard contracts, anyway.  A lot of writers must have signed a contract just like this.

4.  Most publishers are above-board and honest, aren’t they?

If if all are those are true, read the contract anyway.  But suppose you do read it and there are parts you don’t understand.  Communicate with the publisher and ask him or her what those clauses mean.  If you’re still confused, you can hire an intellectual property lawyer, but that shouldn’t be necessary for most short story contracts.  Don’t sign the contract until you understand the terms and agree to them.

It’s a truism that contracts favor the party that writes them.  You can attest to that, I’m sure, from other types of contracts you’ve seen which always spell out in detail what you’re supposed to do and what bad things will happen if you don’t, but gloss over the expectations and penalties for the other party.

Remember–a contract is an agreement between two willing parties who each give something and get something.  So you can negotiate terms.  If there’s something you don’t like in the contract or something missing, negotiate to make it right.  Walking away from a bad deal is always an option–right up until you sign it.

Feel free to let me know what your experience with short story contracts has been.  But hereinafter in consideration of the mutual covenants herein contained, the party of the first part shall be referred to as–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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Book Review – Unbroken

Every once in a while, I’m reminded how little I have to complain about.  Go ahead, do as I did and read Unbroken, a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand and see if you can whine about something going wrong in your life.

I listened to the Random House Audio version © 2010, read by Edward Herrmann.

This book is a biography focusing on the life of Louis Zamperini.  The man is so fascinating that his life would not require a skilled biographer to result in a great book. But Hillenbrand is a skilled biographer.  Zamperini was quite a scamp in his youth, then channeled his energy into running.  He ran well enough to compete in the 1936 Olympics.  When World War II broke out, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator aircraft.  When the plane got shot down, Zamperini and two others endured weeks in a tiny, leaking raft with insufficient supplies.  Though one man died, Zamperini and the other aviator survived 47 days until they were finally picked up…by the Japanese.  Sent to various prisoner of war camps, Zamperini barely survived the torture and degradation until the end of the war.  Following his release, he experienced a slow collapse of his life until becoming a born-again Christian.  Hillenbrand’s choice of the word ‘unbroken’ for her title refers not only to Zamperini’s indomitable will to survive, but also to some of his high school and college track records which remained unbroken for years.

Hillenbrand must have done considerable research for this book.  I liked how she would occasionally deviate from a strict chronological treatment to explain some point that made Zamperini’s life easier to understand.  She sidetracked in this way to explain B-24 bombers, American life rafts from that period, the experiences of other WW II POWs, and several other things.  Even with these asides, she never strayed too long from her main focus.  She didn’t shy away from some of the rougher language the men used or some of the hideous tortures the prisoners endured.  This book is not for the faint of heart.  Although it must have been tempting, while writing such a book, to try to psychologically analyze the subject, Hillenbrand resisted that for the most part, only lightly touching on some of his more obvious personality traits to explain behavior.  Edward Herrmann did a fine job with the narration of the book.

I have few negative comments, since the book really blew me away.  I think, at times, Hillenbrand “fell in love” with her subject too much.  It seems to me she strayed from a more objective approach.  Since she most likely interviewed Zamperini himself while researching, it’s hard to know who is responsible for exaggerating one of the more unbelievable scenes.  Did an exhausted and malnourished man really wrestle and kill sharks leaping into the raft?  I have not read Zamperini’s own memoir, Devil at My Heels, and it would be interesting to compare the two accounts.

I’m giving Unbroken a rating of 4 seahorses using my trademarked book review grading system.  It is an outstanding biography and I strongly recommend you read it.  I understand someone’s making a movie from the book and that could be well worth watching.  Compared to Louis Zamperini’s life experiences, my own life has been a breeze, for which I’m grateful.  Sitting here in a very uncomplaining and non-whiny mood, I’m–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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Of Adverbs, Approvingly

Was ever a part of speech more maligned than adverbs?  Go ahead–search the Web for a kind treatment of them.  More often you’ll find admonitions to hunt them down and kill them where they stand.  Is that nice?  What have adverbs ever done to you?

Adverbs are those words most often ending in ‘ly,’ that modify verbs and adjectives.  They often answer a ‘how?’ or ‘to what extent?’ question with respect to their attached verb or adjective.  How did he run?  Rapidly.  How did she speak?  Quietly.  To what extent was the room decorated?  An outrageously decorated room.

What’s so wrong about modifying verbs and adjectives?  Why do most writing books and websites advise writers to banish adverbs?  First, remember the basic structure of an English sentence–subject, verb, and object.  The verb is where the action is, the real power and punch of any sentence.  Over time, English has become rich in verbs, overflowing with them (by one count over 9000).  In odd cases when the right verb doesn’t exist, we sometimes take a noun and verbize it.

With all these verbs to choose from, why not select the one with the precise intended meaning and use that?  If a writer does that, her verb won’t require modifying by any adverb at all.  Sometimes writers get lazy, though, and choose weak verbs, then try strengthening them with adverbs.  Sometimes an even lazier writer adds an adverb that, well, adds nothing.  Tom crept slowly.  Um, how else would he creep?

Another knock against adverbs ties in with the ‘show, don’t tell,’ advice.  Adverbs tell us about the verb, but instead the writer could bring the sentence alive with a short clause showing us ‘how’ or ‘to what extent.’  Tom crept with snail-speed so he wouldn’t set off the motion detector. 

Against these damning criticisms, how can I dare to defend the adverb?  First, an occasional well-chosen adverb can help a sentence.  ‘Slowly’ is an example of one I find useful, but not for modifying verbs that already imply slowness.

Second, I’m mindful that adverbs haven’t always been denigrated. I’m not sure when they fell out of fashion, but many nineteenth century authors peppered their works with adverbs.  Perhaps the ban on adverbs is just a fad.  They might come back in style.  Some brave author could craft a well-written novel chock full of them and see it become a bestseller.  Others would then copy that author’s technique, and everyone will wonder how we got along without adverbs.

You could be that trail-blazing author, but if I were you I’d leave that to the literary types.  In the meantime, if you want your works to sell in today’s markets, I advocate using adverbs in a sparing manner, no more than one per page.  When you edit, search for those ‘ly’ words.  When you find one, consider choosing a stronger, more precise verb.  If there is none, consider adding a short clause or new sentence expressing your point in a vivid manner with nouns and verbs alone.

As always, feel free to comment.  Until you do I’ll sit here being, most patiently and expectantly,

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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